Mon | May 25, 2020

Samantha Radway Morrison | Coronavirus: A test of 21st-century knowledge and skills

Published:Tuesday | March 31, 2020 | 12:20 AMSamantha Radway Morrison/Guest Columnist

A few weeks ago, in a maiden keynote presentation titled ‘21st Century Demands: Implications for Education and Educational Leadership’, I focused on what are some 21st-century demands, 21st-century skills, and the paradigm shift needed in education and education leadership to meet the demands.

I am suggesting here, as I did then, that the 21st century will be marked by challenges, opportunities, and threats. Some will be remnants from the previous decades, but some will be distinctly their own. Responding to these demands is not an option. However, we ought to be mindful that our responses will have implications for this century and beyond.


Several themes have been posited as 21st-century themes, and these give us a good insight into what the demands are. Such themes as global awareness and the emerging literacies – financial, economic, entrepreneurial, business, civic, technological, information, health, and environmental – must be given the same pride of place as reading, writing, and arithmetic. They must inform our curricula at all levels.

These must be coupled with the new oft-touted 21st-century skills of collaboration, creativity, communication, critical thinking, and community so as to inform individual and collective responses to the challenges and opportunities that the century brings. They must be taught in authentic contexts.


COVID-19 has forced a global response. While some may have ignored climate change and its effects, few can, or will, ignore the current pandemic. What we are witnessing, and are involuntarily part of, is the administering and sitting of a test that requires the application of 21st-century skills. These are not new but are ‘newly important’.

I am heartened by the collaborative efforts, creativity, communication, critical thinking, and sense of community that are being applied in the efforts to address the crisis. The extent to which we pass, or fail, is dependent on how effectively we have been prepared and are able to apply the skills. This is what education should do. The education of the 21st century should emphasise what students can do with knowledge and help them to apply what they learn in authentic contexts.

According to Owen (2015), “Traditional models of formal schooling are increasingly viewed as outdated in preparing students from varied backgrounds for 21st century work and life.” This is a view I share.


Unfortunately, it took a pandemic for leaders across all sectors, including education, to realise that we needed a radical paradigm shift.

In my presentation, I suggested that going into the 21st century, we need innovative education, which, for me, means not just teaching 21st-century skills and themes, but applying them as well.

I am not oblivious to the fact that prior to this, strides have been made in this direction nor to current and long-standing challenges. However, I am elated to see the significant shift towards innovation in education.

In my 30-plus years in education, never before have I seen such display of collaboration, creativity, communication, decisions informed by critical thinking, as well as sense of community in the sector. Innovative education is here in full force!

Stakeholders are not afraid to take risks. There have been trials and errors, resources are being shared, technology is being used in intelligent ways, and students and parents are more involved in the teaching and learning process. In a matter of days, several problem-solving initiatives have been implemented, and nobody needed to go on a retreat for these to happen, and the list goes on.


My fervent prayer is that things do not return to normal in education after COVID-19. I am hoping that these brilliant ideas will not be shelved and that stakeholders are documenting the results. This is fertile ground for research.

After COVID-19:

• Will a student who has to stay home from school but who can join the class virtually still be marked absent?

• Will we find that some teachers have made themselves redundant because they are easily replaced by a YouTube video?

• Will students recognise and appreciate the part they can play in their own learning?

• Will leaders in education recognise the opportunities for partnerships, the commitment of teachers and the need to transform educational institutions into innovative spaces even at the risk of not being favourably ranked?

Samantha Radway Morrison is the projects and research officer at Church Teachers’ College. Email feedback to